In Measure I tax renewal, SMART train faces critical test with voters
When voters in Sonoma and Marin counties a dozen years ago approved the launch of a taxpayer-supported commuter rail agency, they granted overwhelming support to a plan underwritten by big promises and coupled with high expectations.
It would return daily passenger service to the North Bay for the first time in nearly 60 years, building 70 miles of track on an underused or abandoned rail corridor from the ferry terminal at Larkspur to the depot in Cloverdale.
To supporters, including thousands of regular riders, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is making headway toward that vision. Its green-and-gray, diesel-powered trains began rolling with paid passengers in summer 2017, and its expanding 45-mile line now links Santa Rosa to Larkspur — and to San Francisco by ferry.
And weekday ridership continues to grow, galvanizing supporters who see it as a transformational and more climate-friendly alternative to commuting on traffic-clogged Highway 101.
Opponents, however, say it has fallen far short of its ambitious goals, with a delayed build-out, guarded approach to publicly addressing questions about ridership and public safety, and soaring costs that critics say are unreasonable.
Now, SMART's future may be at stake in a titanic, two-county political clash sparked by its decision to seek early extension of the quarter-cent sales tax that provides the bulk of the train system's operating funds. The current tax runs out in 2029; SMART officials want an early 30-year renewal to help pay down rising debt costs tied to development of the line.
By 2059, the measure is expected to generate about $2.4 billion for SMART. Without approval, train officials say, they'll be forced to slash passenger service and make deep cuts to their workforce.
Measure I on the March 3 ballot has stoked a fiery debate that caught many of SMART's longtime champions by surprise. It has drawn in two wealthy political donors who have bankrolled rival campaigns to the tune of $2.6 million, making it by far the most expensive North Bay ballot measure on record.
The public debate has been grounded in several fundamental questions about SMART, including whether it has justified its cost — now at $653 million — and earned sufficient trust among residents to warrant reinvestment in the Bay Area's newest public transit system.
Nonriders' support pivotal
The political test comes just 30 months after SMART started service, and following a year marked by a string of eight deaths along the line as well as sharp criticism about lagging overall ridership, which dipped more than 2% in the second year of operation, a Press Democrat analysis found earlier this year.
The outcome hinges on which side wins support among nonriders, who make up most of the electorate in Sonoma and Marin counties. Measure I requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
Supporters say SMART has demonstrated its wider public benefit, offering a transportation option that will be in greater demand in the North Bay over the coming decades.
'For me, it's the big picture. The train is an asset that I believe we want to make sure that we do not abandon. That would be a horrible mistake and throwing away half-a-billion-dollars is not something I would endorse,' said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of SMART's board of directors. 'There's growing pains for sure in certain areas. I don't mean to demean that, but some of that is noise. (It's) proven itself to be, I believe, successful to date, and will only be more successful as we go forward, as we build out along the line.'
But SMART's critics, including some longtime foes who opposed the train from the outset, say the rail system has failed to live up to its promises, serves only a small fraction of the public and at too great an expense.
'The fundamental story is these people are not managing their costs,' said Novato resident Mike Arnold, an economist who was co-chairman of two prior campaigns against SMART. 'We have the responsibility to provide cost-effective transit alternatives. A rail system within suburbia has very little chance of taking many riders, because they can't get people to where they want to go.
'If the agency is going to be transparent and accountable with the taxpayers,' he added, 'it should explain this to them and then let the voters decide whether or not this is something that they want to continue to fund.'
The first attempt to pass a sales tax to support the train narrowly failed in 2006. Two years later, voters approved Measure Q, which authorized SMART and kick-started construction of the line, with 70% of the vote. SMART projections at the time showed it would cost $541 million to build the entire rail and paved pathway projects, with expected tax revenues over 20 years at $890 million.